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Science-engaged theology: moving beyond academia

Revd Dr Lucas Mix

For eight years, the Science for Seminaries (SfS) programme has helped Christian seminaries to bring science into their core curriculum. SfS launched in the US and Canada in 2014, headed by AAAS DoSER in partnership with the Association of Theological Schools. In 2020, we partnered with Common Awards to carry out this work in the UK and Ireland. Combined, we have awarded grants to 66 seminaries in all four countries and across the theological spectrum. Last month, we gathered in Washington, DC to assess the past and consider the future.

The meeting brought together staff from DoSER and ECLAS with four awardees from the US and three from the UK. The discussion included practicing scientists in biology, computing, neurology, physics, and sociology, as well as specialists in theology, ministry, and biblical studies. I am still processing, but one lesson stood out for me. Science-engaged theology is not just an academic pursuit. It is most fruitful when it has a concrete, practical, spiritual, and personal character.

 

Drawing boundaries

We began with a discussion about how to help scientists and faith leaders communicate. We talked about the value of “staying in your lane” and knowing the extent of your own expertise. What is the shape of scientific expertise and what are the bounds of scientific knowledge? How does theology guide people from scripture and tradition to beliefs about the world? Why do you think what you think? And who can you speak for?[1]

By the second day, we began to talk more critically about where the boundaries are. It’s not as simple as “staying in your lane.” For example, science is often presented as value-free, but this misses the value placed on truth telling, collaboration, and community.[2] It downplays the role of creativity and emotion.[3] Conversely, it can obscure the biases all of us are prone to.[4] This does not minimize the importance of objectivity as an ideal, nor the immense benefits science provides. SfS is all about promoting science, after all. But it shows that science is a human endeavour, grounded in human minds and cultures. I say a bit more about this in my blog post on science-engaged theology.

 

Decolonizing science and religion

We met with Science for Seminaries awardees at Howard School of Divinity to discuss “decolonizing science and religion.” The ideas and institutions of “modern science” – much like the category of “religion” – are grounded in a particular cultural context (largely white, Western, and Protestant). They emphasize objective minds, abstract knowledge, and power over the physical environment.[5] They have historically ignored, excluded, or objectified everything that does not fit neatly into the Enlightenment mindset (largely white, Western, and Protestant). Black communities in the US have a different relationship with “science” as a result – both the abstract category and the concrete history of working with biased theories and unjust institutions. The values of truth telling, collaboration, and community remain, but they lead to different emotions, expectations, and application.

By the end of the day, we were more confused about where the boundaries of science are, but were reassured that science and theology can make clear contributions to daily life. We returned to the benefit of helping practicing scientists connect with faith communities. Science may be tough to categorize, but it describes concrete communities working to improve the world, often with significant success. By focusing on specific people doing research and applying it to local problems, Science for Seminaries can improve theological education. Expanding the range of people and problems can improve the process if we are intentional about how local context shapes values, expectations, and even the categories we use.

 

References and further reading

[1] For more on this, check out Thinking Fair by Lucas Mix, Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz, and other books on epistemic humility.

[2] Why Science and Faith Need Each Other: Eight Shared Values that Move Us Beyond Fear by Elaine Ecklund

[3] The Poetry and Music of Science by Tom McLeish

[4] This has been well documented in the history of biology and science, particularly at the intersection with ethics and religion. Check out Divine Variations by Terrance Keel and Superior: The Return of Race Science by Angela Saini. For a deeper dive into the definition of “science” and the temptation to classify it as value-free, see “The Dominant View of Popularization: Conceptual Problems, Political Uses” by Stephen Hilgartner in Social Studies of Science 20(3):519-539.

[5] Useful resources with an eye toward science and religion include Science as Salvation by Mary Midgely and The Religion of Technology by David Noble.

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